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Between Instinct and Habit
Moral Dispositions
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 10 Mar 97
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Honors Thesis (magna cum laude)
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

In the first chapter of this thesis, I outlined of a theory of moral dispositions, focusing on the ways in which it addressed the need for accuracy and faithfulness in moral decisions, as well as the necessity of the development of particular skills of moral judgment. Nietzsche's account of instinct and Aristotle's view of habit examined in the second and third chapters provide valuable insight into how a theory of moral dispositions ought to be further developed, so that it may be effectively used to realize our moral ideals. Despite the problems in each philosophers' view, their perspectives will be invaluable to the development of the approach to moral dispositions in this chapter.

As was discussed in the first chapter, the competing demands of accuracy and spontaneity, which seem to require reason and the passions respectively, are resolved through an examination of the origin and nature of those frequently-made moral decisions which pass us by without notice, because we experience no conflict between reason and the passions in making them. Those moral decisions are harmonious and easy due to the fact that they arise out of our stable states of character. These states of character or moral dispositions give us a moral perspective on the world and which constitute who we are as people. Unlike other methods of moral decision-making, acting from our moral dispositions allows us to, through the passions, spontaneously and unconsciously make moral choices which accurately reflect our moral ideals.

The perspectives on moral dispositions found in the writings of Nietzsche and Aristotle greatly expand this basic account of the role of moral dispositions in moral decision-making. Nietzsche's ideals of self-mastery and self-determination provide an understanding of the necessity that dispositions be self-created; for Nietzsche, they must spring from the individual, not be pressed upon her by an outside source. Additionally, his view that instinct represents an overcoming of both (narrow) rationality and animality in order to make possible rational, spontaneous moral action highlights one of the most important values gained from developing dispositions. Aristotle's conviction that virtue, as acquired through the formation of moral dispositions, is learned by doing, as well as his insistence that we must learn to feel pleasure and pain rightly in order to be virtuous, are also essential to the account of moral dispositions to be developed.

In this chapter, then, I extend this account of moral dispositions which was sketched in the first chapter, making extensive use of the insights of Nietzsche and Aristotle. As in the chapters on Nietzsche and Aristotle, I examine (1) the origin of these moral dispositions, (2) the process by which they are created, and (3) the outcome of using them in moral decision-making. In doing so, I highlight the benefits of cultivating our moral dispositions so that our actions may be guided by them. Finally, I will briefly comment on the role moral dispositions in the context of the wider moral lives of individuals.

The Origin Of Moral Dispositions:

In discussing the proper origin of moral dispositions, we ought not lose sight of either the ideal of self-created dispositions or the importance of the moral dispositions formed by individuals in their youth. While Nietzsche focuses on the need for moral dispositions to be created by the individual, Aristotle is perhaps more realistic about the scope, magnitude, and long-term effects of the habits created during the early years of an individual's life. Despite their differences, both of these perspectives have something to offer an understanding of the origin of moral dispositions.

(i) Moral dispositions in the lives of children

The process of forming moral habits is certainly one which begins very early in a child's life. Young children learn how, for example, to construct and play games with others in a way that is interesting and fun for all. In doing so, they have to know how to take into account the range of knowledge and skills which the individuals in the group possess, to be attentive to the feelings of others, to resolve disputes, and to manage their own emotions. Children learn complicated skills like these throughout their early years, and thus unconsciously form innumerable moral dispositions. Without these dispositions, children would be incapable of coping with the obstacles and challenges they face, let alone pleasurably interacting with others. (See, for example, John Holt's discussion of children managing the tensions inherent to a situation in Freedom and Beyond (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995. 5-7).

And so, although consciously-created dispositions are the ideal at which individuals ought to aim, the dispositions unconsciously created in an individual's early years ought not be denigrated. They serve the immediate needs of those young individuals, by enabling them to respond in regular ways to the world. Additionally, they serve as the foundation upon which the more conscious moral dispositions are built, thereby furthering the gradual moral, intellectual, and social growth of those children. In most cases, even the content of moral dispositions created in childhood, such as a sense of fairness and concern for others, ought to be retained by in adulthood, although perhaps in a more refined form.

Given then importance of these early-formed dispositions, it seems appropriate ground the normative standard for moral disposition in part on the degree of self-awareness and self-reflection possible to the individual at that stage in her life. For children, it is enough that good habits are created, regardless of whether they are aware of the moral ideal at which those habits aim. For example, it is adequate that a child learns that hitting other people is mean and unjust, even if they do not understand the ways in which that habit further the formation and maintenance of valuable and harmonious social interactions. "Habit," in fact, is a very appropriate term for this type of unconsciously-created moral disposition, because the term does not imply significant degree of conscious self-awareness or critical self-reflection on the part of the agent who forms the disposition.

Although Nietzsche and Aristotle devote little attention to the lives of children, both of them employ a developmental model of moral dispositions which is compatible with this sort of analysis. For Nietzsche, the instincts acquired in childhood, which necessarily reflect the herd morality, are necessary as objects of overcoming. In other words, because genuine, self-created instincts can only arise through a process of overcoming the instinctual mores, those mores are a stepping stone to the ideal. For Aristotle, good habits formed in the youth, because they serve to condition the emotions to feel pleasure and pain rightly, pave the way for the sort of self-direction in morality possible only to adults.

(ii) Moral dispositions and self-awareness in adults

Adults themselves can and frequently do create rote habits, with little conscious thought into the ways in which their patterns of behavior are being molded and developed over time into certain dispositions. Because adults are generally capable of greater self-determination and autonomy than children, the unconscious creation of such habits is less-than-ideal. A value on individual self-determination and independence requires that we be aware, as much as possible, of the facts and circumstances which motivate the creation of specific moral dispositions. Are we trying to become more intellectual, for example, because we feel inadequate around certain friends or because intellectual growth would actually benefit our lives? By retaining a certain level of self-awareness and critical reflection in the creation of our moral dispositions, we can be much more certain that our dispositions serve our life and values. We will be less likely to adopt new patterns of behavior due to mistaken implicit beliefs or the disapproval of others. As a result, through an understanding of the ways in which new or refined dispositions help us grow as persons, we can witness and take pleasure in our own moral development. Awareness of the creation of dispositions does not preclude the possibility of errors -- even grave errors -- with respect to the dispositions we develop within ourselves. Nevertheless, it does greatly diminish the risks, as well as provides the foundation upon which those dispositions can be overturned or refined in the future.

Moral dispositions, if created through a process of self-reflection, are also more authentic and flexible than their less conscious counterparts. Self-awareness in our dispositions allows us to examine whether, for example, a moral disposition for tolerance of a friend's continual tardiness authentically coheres with the rest of our personality. We can be certain (up to a point) that creating such a disposition would reflect who we are and who we want to be, rather than simply the person others want us to be. Additionally, self-awareness allows us to much more easily reflect back to our established moral dispositions to see whether they still serve our lives and happiness. As our lives change, after all, old patterns of behavior may become obsolete or detrimental to our well-being and the well-being of those we care about. If our dispositions are outdated, we can use knowledge gained in self-reflection to overcome old dispositions in favor of gradually forming new moral dispositions which actually do further our personal and moral development. And so, even though most dispositions are stable over time and are thus not subject to substantial change, moral dispositions which originate in self-awareness have the capacity to be more adaptive to changes in our lives and in our moral values than those adopted unconsciously.

The precise origin of moral dispositions, then, directly bears upon their moral value and their effectiveness as guides to action. It is not simply a matter of whether the catalyst for the creation of a moral disposition lies inside or outside the moral agent, but also the degree of self-awareness an agent brings to the process of creating moral dispositions, because that awareness often determines how well the dispositions serve the life and well-being of that moral agent.

The Process Of Creating Moral Dispositions:

In the first chapter, I argued that creating moral dispositions begins with adopting a new moral ideal, which we can discover through exemplars, the advice of a friend, or even readings on moral philosophy or psychology. By altering our behavior so that it is consonant with these new ideals, over time we create moral dispositions which express those ideals. The moral ideals we adopt, then, both serve as catalysts for the creation of moral dispositions and provide those moral dispositions with intentionality and purposefulness.

(i) Moral ideals

Moral growth and change generally requires an end or ideal at which we are actively aiming. We encounter new moral ideals through our interactions with the world and the people in it, such as the authenticity and openness of a new friend or the frankness of a child; they give us a new perspective on the world and on our own behavior. In certain cases, the ideal is clear and the process of working towards it is relatively linear, such as in trying to change the tone of one's writing to a more friendly one. In other cases, the path to the ideal is unclear or perhaps even the ideal changes as one grows. For example, a man might revise his conception of what it means to be open from simple self-disclosure to a more complex sense of authenticity with some and deep intimacy with others in the course of attempting to become more open. Yet another variation is possible in the case of dispositions acquired in childhood. In such cases, if an individual becomes aware of the disposition and chooses to retain it, the discovery of the ideal at which it aims occurs after the disposition itself is acquired. In such cases of unconscious habits, the realization of the ideal can serve to further refine that disposition.

Because dispositions must already fit, to a certain extent, in with an individual's world-view and personality, it is probably that many dispositions (good and bad) are out of the reach of an individual. It is highly improbable, for example, that I could ever become Christian, because it would require a radical change of personality, belief, and basic response to the world. It would conflict too much with who I am already. This is not to say that people do not or cannot undergo radical conversion experiences, but just that such conversions must to, to a certain extent, consonant with who that person already is.

The process of deliberating about ideals in the process of choosing which ideals to adopt is not, contra Aristotle, deliberating about ends rather than means. The moral ideals we embrace, although they are the ends at which our moral dispositions aim, are also instrument towards the good life. It is as means to the sort of life we wish to lead that we deliberate about which ideals to internalize.

This process of deliberation about our moral ideals, although it does take time and focus, does not encounter the problem of feasibility which plagues the highly deliberative method of moral judgment discussed in the first chapter. That form of deliberation, because it does take an investment of time and focus, can eliminate or greatly diminish the possibility for spontaneity in moral decision-making. Deliberation about our ideals, on the other hand, is not an on-the-spot process; we do not need to engage in it in order to make any given moral decisions. We can engage in such deliberation whenever we can devote the time and attention to it, rather than at a particular moment. We can deliberate about our moral ideals while in the shower, driving to work, while eating lunch, or even while performing any rote task; we are not wedded to a particular time or situation in which moral deliberation must be conducted (Although, of course, such deliberation should be conducted in a timely manner, so that we do not unnecessarily retain old harmful dispositions.) Additionally, it is this moral deliberation which makes spontaneous action possible, rather than prevents it from occurring.

The process of deliberation about our ideals also results in circumventing many of the problems of acting on mere passions. Because deliberation about our ideals and the formation of stable dispositions regularizes the response of our passions, the passions then become a much more reliable guide to action. Thus deliberation about ideals is instrumental in avoiding the problems of both highly deliberative action and passionate action.

(ii) Habitual action

Our moral dispositions themselves are created by aiming at the moral ideals we have adopted. If we have embraced an ideal of emotional attentiveness with our friends, we strive to be emotionally attentive when we are with them. As Aristotle argued, we must learn to be emotionally attentive by actually being emotionally attentive, i.e. by continually attempting to get closer the ideal in much the same way that a child continually attempts to walk steadily on her own (NE II:1, 1103a-b). Through those successively more accurate attempts, as Sarah Broadie argued with respect to forming habits, we learn the requisite skills of emotional attentiveness (Broadie 109). We learn how to read facial expressions better and how to catch small wavers in the voice, for example, until we automatically take note of such indications of an person's emotional state. In this way, our ideals precipitate the formation of habits and regular patterns of behavior.

(iii) Gradual learning versus success/failure models of learning

This model of successively better attempts to realize an ideal is somewhat foreign to our culture; we are used to thinking about morality, as with most other tasks, as a matter of total success versus total failure. However, this binary model is not useful, and in fact can be dangerous, when the ideal for which we are striving requires a gradual and ongoing process of learning. It is not the case that we can simply resolve to be more attentive to others; we need to learn specific skills, particularly perceptual skills, in order to enable ourselves to be emotionally attentive towards others. John Holt, in his book How Children Fail, discusses the difference between the success/failure paradigm and the gradual learning models with respect to children. He writes:

Babies learning to walk, and falling down as they try, or healthy six- and seven-year-olds learning to ride a bike, and falling off, do not think each time they fall, "I failed again." Healthy babies or children, tackling difficult projects of their own choosing, think only when they fall down or off, "Oops, not yet, try again." Nor do they think, when they finally being to walk or ride, "Oh boy, I'm succeeding!" They think, "Now I'm walking! Now I'm riding!" The joy is in the act itself, the walking or the riding, not in some idea of success (Holt 69).

Adults could learn a great deal from these attitudes which healthy, self-confident children have towards the goals they set for themselves. Instead of viewing morality as something at which we either succeed or fail, we ought to regard it as a gradual process of learning and development which is inherently pleasurable to experience. A focus on the process of becoming virtuous and on moral growth, rather than a fixation of obtaining the correct results, allows us to be more tolerant of the slow, often halting, progress which we make towards our moral ideals. It allows us to be more accepting and realistic about where we are right now. In fact, by focusing on process, we can learn, like the child, to take pleasure and pride in the growth we do accomplish for ourselves. We can learn to move beyond our mistakes, rather than dwell on them unnecessarily.

Over time, just as we have learned to ride bicycles and walk without conscious effort, we naturally use the skills required by our moral ideals. Without thinking, we find that we can notice the essential details and odd nuances of a moral situation, such as the quality of a friend's voice or her angry response to our show of concern. We no longer have to think about our ideals or how to achieve them, for those ideals have become part of who we are as persons. If all has gone well in the process of moral learning, we are kind and attentive, for example, in the same way that we are walkers. Although we may occasionally fall down or act unkindly, the vast majority of time, we walk and behave kindly without the necessity of conscious effort or exertion of the will. We are able to act with the grace and spontaneity which Nietzsche finds so crucial to moral action.

In the case of our good, stable moral dispositions, certain important benefits emerge. Because our ideals were consciously adopted, even though we act without deliberating, our actions do have a clear purposefulness and deliberateness to them. The actions which arise out of our moral dispositions are the means to the ideal which we have consciously, deliberately adopted, and so those actions ought to be regarded as purposeful and deliberate as well. In fact, unlike consciously formed habits, we can, without too much effort, reflect upon the origin and purpose of our moral dispositions. We can then reaffirm them, alter them to better suit our lives, or even jettison them in favor of entirely new moral dispositions. As discussed in relation to Nietzsche, if we try to separate our moral dispositions from their inherent intentionality, we lose the ability to reexamine them in order to discover whether they still serve our lives, given the changes that have occurred in and around us since we first created them.

The Result, In Action, Of Moral Dispositions:

As a consequence of developing our moral instincts, we achieve a Nietzschean capacity for spontaneous moral action and an Aristotelian pleasure in virtue and in moral growth for its own sake. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, we are able to achieve harmony between our rational judgment and our emotional motivation for moral action in moral decision-making.

By letting the process of moral decision-making be guided by our moral dispositions, we engage in the rational deliberation necessary for good moral choices before we must actually make such choices, leaving us free to simply act when the occasion arises. As a result, for example, of having formed a disposition of respect for the property of others, we do not have to take the time to consider whether or not to steal; the thought would probably not even cross our minds, because the disposition is part of who we are as people. We can thus act spontaneously, with the grace and beauty found in the animal world, while not forsaking the rationality which is only possible to humans.

Of course, sometimes dispositions will pull us in different directions, due to the complex nature of a particular moral situation. For example, we may be inclined to be tolerant of the bad behavior of a friend, because we know that he is going through a tough time, but at the same time, feel that he has stepped over a boundary or two in a way that you want him to understand. In such cases, dispositions help shorten the time required for moral deliberation, because they naturally indicate the range of possible choices. In such borderline cases, we need not revert to the full-blown deliberate process of judgment discussed in the first chapter.

In true Aristotelian fashion, good moral dispositions also allow us to take pleasure in our virtue, which both enables a fuller enjoyment of life and impels us towards moral action. Because moral dispositions become part of who we are as people, acting from them is an expression of the self and a method by which we can make our inner characters visible to the world. This form of self-expression is naturally pleasurable. As a result, we experience a harmony between our internal and our outward selves, and are aware of ourselves as integrated, whole people. On the other hand, to act contrary to our moral dispositions would constitute a rejection of our inner selves, naturally causing of pain and distress. Such action would result in the feeling of being bifurcated into two distinct selves, only one of which we dared to show to other people.

The most important result of creating good moral dispositions, however, is the harmony between the demands of accuracy and spontaneity made possible by well-formed moral dispositions. By using moral dispositions, we can unify the beneficial capacities of both reason and the passions in moral decision-making. There is conscious purposefulness in the creation of dispositions and emotional pleasure in acting from those dispositions. Additionally, we can remain focused on moral growth and development rather than simply considering whether we did the right thing.

The Appropriate Use Of Moral Dispositions:

Using moral dispositions in our moral decision-making is therefore an effective and valuable method of arriving at good moral choices and motivating moral action. Nevertheless, this method no panacea to the moral issues we face; there will always be tough moral decisions about which we will have to deliberate at length. In new and novel situations, such as dealing with a particularly emotionally delicate friend or a custody battle between with the spouse we are in the process of divorcing, we may find ourselves needing to serious think about how to best approach the situation. In decisions with serious or long-term consequences, such as the decision to get married or change jobs, engaging in conscious deliberation can serve as an important double check on the automatic push and pull of moral dispositions. In both cases, however, our dispositions are still extremely useful, as pointers and guideposts to moral action.

Additionally, as I mentioned in the previous section, no set of moral dispositions could adequately cover all of the moral choices which we face in the course of our lifetime. Some situations will be on the boundary line of a disposition, so that although we have a disposition to act in one way, there are also relevant considerations pulling us in the opposite direction.

Thus, in the end, the gradual and continual development of life-serving moral dispositions makes both our everyday choices and the more difficult and rare choices easier and less conflicted. We are able to make better use of all the tools of moral judgment available to us, particularly the capacity for rational deliberation and the motivation for action which the passions provide. But perhaps the most important benefit of moral dispositions is that they allow us to spend more time living -- and living well -- than mired in moral tangles and dilemma.

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